The GrantDoctor: Hey Dude, Where's My Grant?


Dear Readers,

Lately I have received several e-mails from NIH research grant applicants who've started to get a little nervous. At least two of them, both new investigators, received great priority scores at the October meetings, so they fully expect their grants to be funded. But they were hoping to have their money by now; instead, they haven't even been notified of a funding decision. They contacted NIH staff, but they weren't much help. It seems they were determined not to raise false hopes but quite willing to allow the persistence of unnecessary anxiety. So these grant applicants called upon the GrantDoctor to ask her to play PI (that's Private Investigator, not Principal, Investigator) and find their money for them.

I have to say, my investigation was not a great success. The money, it seems, is in a state not unlike a quantum mechanical wave packet just before a measurement, existing in principle but somehow not quite real. That is to say, the money is on its way, but right now it's still floating around the federal government, wending its way gradually to its final destination, wherever that may be.

The problem, as most of you know, is that Congress was late in deciding how much money NIH would get this year. As a consequence, funds are still being apportioned among the various institutes. And no decisions about new grants and programs can be made until NIH and its constituent institutes and centers (I/Cs) know how much money they'll have left over once their current obligations have been met.

Overall, the NIH research budget was increased by roughly 2% this year--the worst performance in 20 years--but it's worse than it sounds because their previous commitments are considerable (remember the days of 15% increases? All the new grants awarded then had a 5-year term, so they're still paying for them). Furthermore, renewals, even when they have to compete against new grants, tend to be funded at about a 50% clip, which means, in effect, that new grant applicants will be the last to feed at a rather small trough.

Still, the good news--if you can call it that--is that there isn't any definite bad news. I was able to confirm that NIH's failure to notify likely grant recipients is only due to the fact that so far no decisions have been made. Knowing that dinner, however meager, is still in the oven, is much better than fearing that the feast is over and the master is trying to figure out which of the dogs to throw the table scraps to.

Then again, tighter budgets mean that funding bodies have to be more selective of the research projects they will fund. In other words, I/Cs will have to stick closer to their priorities. There's no doubt about it: scientists who aren't doing work that's relevant to weapons systems or homeland security will have to tighten their belts in the coming years. Scientific merit alone ?e.g., priority scores?won't get you a grant. Nevertheless, if these put you well into the usual funding range you should, in the GrantDoctor's opinion, remain hopeful.

Remaining hopeful is, of course, more easily said than done. So when will your anxiety be alleviated? Either 1. When you go to that expensive spa for a glass of wine, a sauna, and a massage, or 2. In about a month, when NIH said it hopes to begin notifying applicants and dispersing funds.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor


Dear GrantDoctor:

I am a graduate student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and I am about to defend my thesis in 3-4 months. I am NOT an American citizen, and that's why I am having a very hard time finding a fellowship for my postdoctoral position. I wish to write a grant for my postdoctoral research on using neural stem cells for the treatment of stroke. Knowing this, could you point me in the right direction to find a suitable grant/fellowship?

Best Regards,Sud

Dear Sud,

If you are determined to do research involving stem cells, and you are determined to do it in the U.S., California is your best bet. In November's elections California passed a bond issue to fill part of the gap left by the dearth of federal funding for stem cell research. This is likely to make them the national leader in this important research area. It's too early, though, to provide details about how to get a slice of the stem-cell pie.

But even California's bold funding plan won't help American research if stem cell research is stigmatized, and there's a possibility that one technique --somatic cell nuclear transfer--will be rendered illegal by congress within a few weeks.

It would be foolish, in my view, to limit your ambitions to U.S. stem-cell programs. The U.S. is unlikely to achieve leadership in this area given the crippling restrictions this administration has imposed. But there are vibrant, well-funded programs in stem cell research all over the world. If you are determined to continue working in this field--and you should be--you ought to consider working in Canada, Europe, or elsewhere.

If, however, you are determined to work in the U.S., one excellent funding option is a postdoc fellowship from the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. This is from their Web site:

Postdoctoral applications are evaluated on three criteria: 1) The applicant; 2) The host laboratory and research environment; and 3) The proposal's scientific merit and relevance of the proposal to the Foundation's goals. Postdoctoral applicants must submit a letter of support from the laboratory's senior scientist, as well as two other appropriate letters of reference.

The next deadline is June 15.

Be Well,

The GrantDoctor

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